It’s a comfort to know someone who’s as neurotic as I am. My friend and coworker Jane gives me that particular solace. Jane, like me, tends to get too attached to inanimate objects.
I am, however, trying to change.
My husband, Walt, and I married three years ago—a first marriage late in life for both of us. I often wonder if he regrets the mess, literally, that he married into. Soon after our wedding, we moved in with my mother, who had grown frail since my dad’s death a decade earlier and could no longer easily live alone. My mom and her memories were blithely ensconced in the old family homestead, a stuffed-to-the-eaves house on the Jersey shore.
Living in my childhood home is oddly illusory. Sometimes through an open window on a summer night, I imagine I’ve caught the scent of the honeysuckle that no longer grows on the front yard fence. Sometimes when I dust the porcelain horses on the shelf above my desk, I recognize in my heart the hope I’d had, at ten, of having a real palomino. And sometimes when I glance at the pull-the-string Casper that stands on my pink-decaled dresser, I feel again the pangs of first love—for a cartoon character.
And then the present pulls my string: I’m surrounded by stuff—overrun by the many objects that had belonged not only to me, but also to my mother, my father, my sister, my brother, my grandmothers, my grandfathers, my fussy Great-Aunt Flossy, my demented Great-Aunt Batty (as we fondly called her), my pack-rat Great-Aunt Esther, and my long-suffering Uncle Bo, Esther’s second husband, who had lived with all the old great-aunts in Virginia until the last of that generation died, bequeathing the detritus by default to my parents in the north. Among the jetsam were an abundance of antique candy dishes, a profusion of Flintstones jelly jars, a Ping-Pong table, five Flexible Flyers, every issue of Consumer Reports since 1936, a 1963 Montgomery Ward Sea King boat motor, twenty-two ties on a twelve-tie tie rack, an autographed eight-by-ten glossy of Art Linkletter, an inflatable Sinclair dinosaur, a Pinocchio marionette without a nose, and a seven-foot-tall papier-mâché rabbit.
Still, Walt and I threw none of these “treasures” onto the pile of things we gathered for our small town’s annual bulk-pickup day, which took place on the second Wednesday in September. Instead, on the eve of the pickup, we gathered true junk that we could never sell or give away—treadless tires, rusty pogo sticks, bent gutter drains. And, at the end of a long evening of purging, just before I carried that last armful of junk to the street, I tossed, on impulse, one more object onto the heap: my canvas lunch tote. The design of its fabric was still appealing—tiny pink flamingos and green palm trees against a black background—but the small knapsack was falling apart.
On Wednesday morning, I felt a sense of accomplishment as I drove down the driveway and glanced at the mound of street-side rubbish, the tattered tote atop the pile. For a split second, I wondered if I should reclaim the little bag from its fate, but I was pressed for time to make my train to New York and didn’t stop.
I have a daily routine. As soon as I settle into a window seat on the train’s sunny side, I tug the hood of my jacket over my eyes and doze off. I crave that extra hour of rest after rising early enough to make the 6:42. Today, though, near Rahway, I woke with a start, remembering what my friend Sarah had said when she ran into me on the boardwalk this past summer and noticed that my flamingo tote kept flopping open because its Velcro fasteners were clogged with fuzz: “Why don’t you take it to a tailor to get it fixed?”
I retrieved my cell phone from my purse and called my husband.
“Walt, do me a favor—could you check to see if the trash guys have come to pick up our stuff? And if they haven’t—”
“Okay,” he said. “Let me look.”
I hoped that the junk hadn’t been collected yet. I wanted to save that flamingo bag.
I heard Walt lift the phone again.
“Yep!” he said. “They took everything! Isn’t that great?”
My heart sank. “Everything?”
He exhaled. “Oh, no, Natalie—you’re not having second thoughts about something you threw out, are you?”
“No,” I lied. This had happened before. Last time it had been a plastic Mr. Potato Head. Since then, I’d accepted the toss because most of its pieces were missing.
I said goodbye to my husband and began, as with Mr. Potato Head, to rationalize the little knapsack’s disposal. The bag’s foam insulation had disintegrated. To try to mend it, I had stapled the cracked plastic lining to the canvas, but it had come loose.
Maybe I could buy a new lunch bag just like the old one! I grabbed my cell phone again and began to search online for “flamingo lunch tote,” “flamingo and palm tree lunch tote,” “flamingo knapsack,” and “flamingo insulated bag.” I found only one picture of it. A red-lettered message hovered over the image: “no longer available.”
Then I remembered I had bought it seven years ago at the Happy Crab Gift Shop in South Florida, on my last trip to the Gulf with my friend Harry, for whom I’d always felt a fierce and steadfast love, and who had died several months later from a simple surgery gone wrong.
Finding a new identical flamingo bag suddenly seemed vital. When I googled the shop’s website, I was cautiously hopeful. The store opened at nine. I told myself I would call when I arrived at work. There was nothing more to be done, so I shut my eyes to try to nap.
I couldn’t nap. I called the Happy Crab Gift Shop, even though it was before nine. After the beep, I left a long and detailed voice message, describing every aspect of the flamingo tote. The woman who sat next to me in the middle of the three-seater sighed loudly. My cheeks burned red when I remembered I was in the Quiet Car.
I returned to my frantic search of the Web. In the tunnel under the Hudson, I finally wore myself out and fell asleep. Two minutes later, I woke with a start when the PA blared that we were at the last stop, Penn Station.
Exhausted, I arrived at work and said to Jane, my confidante and the managing editor of Tort Times at Scotch Legal Publishing (where, according to Jane, any day was a reason to drink), “Do you remember that nice little flamingo lunch tote of mine?”
“How could I not?” answered Jane. “It’s like Mary Poppins’s magic carpet bag, but instead of tugging hat stands out of it, you’re pulling out snack bars and bananas all day.”
“It was falling apart, so I threw it away. Now I’m regretting it.”
Jane’s eyes squinted as if she could feel my pain. “Oh, no. The old attachment-to-an-inanimate-object problem.”
I knew Jane would understand.
* * *
Two weeks earlier, Jane had spent some time overseas with a French friend in Paris. “Did you have fun in France?” I asked her when she returned from her vacation.
She answered, without a smile, “Yes, but I’m really upset about a lumbar pillow I took to Europe with me and left in the rental car at the Paris airport. I’ve had that pillow for years.”
“Well, at least it wasn’t a stuffed animal.”
“It was pretty close to being a stuffed animal,” she replied. Jane’s lovely face was contorted with misery. “It was stuffed.”
I winced at having said the wrong thing. “I’m sorry, Jane.”
“It’s somewhere out there in the world without me. I abandoned it.”
“Did you call the car-rental place?”
“Yes, as soon as the wheels touched the runway at JFK. No answer. I left a message. I called my friend in France. When she finally picked up the phone, I didn’t thank her for the wonderful time—I immediately started telling her I’d lost my lumbar pillow. She probably didn’t know what I was talking about. For one thing, I don’t think she was familiar with the word ‘lumbar.’ But I don’t think she even recognized my voice. And then I realized it was the middle of the night in France.”
“Did you call her back? During the daytime—her daytime?”
“Yes, but she didn’t pick up.”
“Maybe she was out distributing flyers about your missing lumbar pillow.”
I laughed. Jane didn’t. The person who’s obsessing usually doesn’t laugh at jokes about the object of obsession.
* * *
Now it was my turn to be obsessed. Jane had left her office and was leaning against my cubicle, letting me lament my loss. Anybody else would have told me to just get over it. Not Jane.
I asked her again if she remembered how cute it was.
“Yes, it was charming.” Jane shook her head, mirroring my sadness. “I’m so sorry, Natalie.”
“Did I tell you it was made of really nice cotton?”
“Several times. But you said it was falling apart, right?” She sounded tentative, as if I might argue with her.
“Yes, it was in terrible shape. But I probably could have asked a tailor to repair it,” I said, echoing my friend Sarah’s words.
“You know, I’m not sure if tailors fix plastic and Velcro . . .” She drummed her fingers on the Plexiglas side of my cubicle. “Where did you get the bag?”
“In Florida. On my last trip with Harry.”
Jane raised her eyebrows.
“I know. I’m sure that’s why I’m so fervent about it.” Of course, the little knapsack reminded me of Harry, but it seemed as if there were something deeper gnawing at me, something that made the pain more acute.
Jane must have felt this way two weeks before. “Did your brother give you that lumbar pillow?” I asked. Jane’s only brother had died when they were both in their twenties. She still seemed bruised from the bereavement, though whenever she spoke of him, she mostly talked about what a “wiseass” he’d been.
“No,” Jane said. She looked pensive. “But when he was three, he lost a little green crib pillow that he’d carry with him everywhere. He had a total meltdown.” She shook her head as if to shake free her thoughts. “I don’t know, Natalie. Whatever it is, you and I both seem to be suffering from the same thing.” She patted the top of my cubicle wall. “We’d better get to work. But come in if you need to talk again.” She walked into her office.
I rolled my chair toward my computer and thought back to that last trip to Florida with Harry. At the end of a long day by the Gulf, we had sat side by side on our towels, facing the ocean. Harry’s arms were linked around his knees, his skinny tanned legs crossed at his ankles. His black hair stuck out, spiky and wet from the sea. The warm air smelled of salt as it stirred around us. “I think you love the beach more than you love me,” he said. I just laughed at him, knowing it wasn’t true. We stayed quiet a long time, watching the waves break into glistening foam. A flock of flamingos landed on a strip of bright wet sand. “Look at them, Nattie.” He tilted his head. “No matter how many times I see them, they still take my breath away. Pink birds. Don’t that just beat all!”
I called the Happy Crab Gift Shop. The salesgirl told me they no longer carried lunch totes. So, once again, I began trolling the Internet for flamingo bags, hoping that somehow the larger computer screen at work would yield better results than had the smaller screen of my cell phone. The search findings were no different. As I looked down in despair, I glanced at my hand. My amethyst ring wasn’t on my finger. Where was it? I always wore it.
Distraught, I rushed to the doorway of Jane’s office. “I lost my ring!”
“Oh, no!” she cried, sympathetic for the second time that morning. “This isn’t your day, is it?”
It wasn’t Jane’s day either. She’d just spent half an hour helping me through my first crisis, and right on its heels came the next one.
“Maybe you took it off and it’s at home. Did you call Walt?” She left her desk to join me.
“I’ll try,” I said, without hope.
I called home. When Walt didn’t answer, I left a message saying I couldn’t find my amethyst ring.
Norris, one of the company IT guys, must have overheard our conversation. He walked over to Jane and me. “Is it your wedding ring?”
“No,” I replied. “It’s the ring my dad gave me when I was sixteen. I’ve been wearing it since then.”
“That’s a long time,” Jane said. “I mean, that’s a really long time.”
“Did it slip off when you were washing with soap and water?” Norris asked.
“No, she never uses soap.” Jane laughed. “Sorry.” She looked at me and sucked in her cheeks. “Not a time for laughter.”
On the other side of our shared Plexiglas wall, Keith, the marketing coordinator, pulled out his earbuds. “Did you say you lost your ring? Did you take it off to wash your hands?”
“She never washes her hands,” said Jane. “Sorry, did it again.”
“I never take it off,” I said, ignoring Jane. “I even wear it in the ocean.”
“Do you wash your hands in the ocean?” Jane asked. She shook her head. “Wow, I really do apologize. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
I knew. Two weeks earlier, I, too, had felt compelled to quip about Jane’s lost lumbar pillow. Even the most empathetic people have their limits and eventually need some comic relief.
Jane, Norris, and Keith began searching the floor. I went to my coworker Elaine’s office. I often go on and on about things to Elaine, so I had purposefully avoided her all day because I knew I’d go on and on about the flamingo knapsack. When I went to see her now, I went on and on about my amethyst ring.
When faced with a crisis, whether it’s realizing that the cross-references in an 800-page treatise must be renumbered before a five o’clock deadline or whether a friend has misplaced a beloved ring, Elaine is levelheaded and charges into action. She gathered her straight brown hair into a ponytail. “You should send an email to the office and ask if anyone has found a ring.”
“I’ll look around.” She set off.
At my desk, as Elaine suggested, I emailed my coworkers, asking them to tell me if they came across an amethyst ring. In my haste, I addressed the message to “Everyone,” so my email was sent not only to my own local New York office but also to the branches in San Diego, Berlin, and Shanghai. One of my colleagues in Germany responded, “We haven’t seen it here!” with an implied “ha, ha.”
Five minutes later, Elaine appeared behind my chair. She reported that she’d combed the ladies’ room but hadn’t encountered my ring. “I’ll ask the security guards downstairs to call us if anyone turns it in.” She strode toward the lobby.
I wondered if the ring might have fallen off my hand into the bulk-pickup pile. I called Walt again to ask him to look for it in the driveway or on the road.
Walt answered the phone this time. “Did you get my message? I found your ring—it was sitting on top of your jewelry box.”
And then I remembered. Last night I’d decided to try on a new turquoise ring that I’d recently bought as a future consolation in case I ever lost my amethyst ring. I must have forgotten to put the old ring on again. How ironic. It was as if the old ring were teaching me a lesson, as if it were saying to me, “I told you so. You like me lots better than that new ring anyway.” But, of course, that was crazy—the ring was an inanimate object.
I peered through the Plexiglas wall of my cubicle into Jane’s office, but she wasn’t at her desk. I told Norris and Keith that my husband had found my ring at home. I located Elaine (who, back from downstairs, was shining a flashlight under the copier) and told her, too.
I returned to my chair and sat down. Jane was walking toward me, carrying a cup of coffee.
“I found my ring!” I said, smiling.
“I’m so glad!” She walked to the opening of my cubicle. “Now you can start obsessing about the flamingo bag again.”
In fanning the flames of my fixation, Jane was not merely craving comic relief to abate her exasperation at having listened to me moan for hours on end. Whether it was a conscious act or not, she was doing what Harry used to call “going for the jugular.” Whenever anxiety had gripped me, Harry would keep mentioning the angst-inducing object of my obsession until he was talking about it even more than I was. “Oh, Nattie,” he’d say, “if only you had stayed three more minutes at the stage door! You would have met the whole cast of The Music Man, and it probably would have changed your life!” Or: “I can’t believe you left that empty conch shell on the beach! You’ll never see it again! I’ll bet that shell is calling for you right now—‘Nattie! Nattie! Why did you leave me?’” At first, the hyperbole would make me more perturbed, but then later I’d glimpse the ludicrousness of my preoccupation, and, finally, I would laugh. Like Jane and me, Harry was prone to “ruminating” (his euphemism). “It takes one to tease one,” he would say.
After Jane’s reminder of my monomania, I once again began trying to convince myself that I’d done the right thing to toss the tote. I swiveled my chair to face her. “The lining was really a mess,” I said, seeking reassurance.
Jane set her cup of coffee on my desk and put her hands on my shoulders. “Natalie.” She fixed her eyes on mine. “You need to let it go.”
Yes. Jane was right.
That afternoon, while formatting footnotes, I mulled over how I cling to the past until it crowds out the present. I thought about the many things that I hadn’t put in the trash collection—things like my childhood crush, Casper. Harry had sometimes called me “Casper,” a loving taunt about my paleness. Now that memory made it even more difficult to exorcise the Friendly Ghost.
At five o’clock, Jane stopped by my cubicle to say good night. “Feeling better?”
“A little.” I wasn’t.
She smiled at me. “One day you’re going to laugh about this.”
“It’s as if I keep searching for something that’s already gone. It’s just an inanimate object. Why do I care?”
“It stings less,” Jane said, as she zipped up her coat, “to mourn the loss of a bit of fluff or fabric.”
Maybe the small losses absorb us to keep the bigger losses out of mind. Maybe our obsessions distract us from the terrors of love. And maybe we dwell on something silly so we won’t be haunted by our more momentous decisions—like my choice to go to the beach the day before Harry’s surgery instead of traveling to the city and spending the day with him.
On my way home on the train, I slept. I woke to see a stretch of salt marsh outside the window, the still water reflecting the evening sky. Near a patch of tall grass, three wading egrets blazed pink in the glow of the setting sun.
I could almost hear Harry’s voice beside me. “See, Nattie? If you open your eyes to what’s in front of you, you can find flamingos anywhere”.
Flamingos everywhere, Harry. Don’t that just beat all.
Beverly Jean Harris is the author of the prize-winning story “Driving the Dodge Over Fifty,” published in Volume V of Short Story America. Another of her stories will appear in Volume VI. Beverly studied fiction writing at the University of New Hampshire and New York’s New School. Having worked every kind of job from making cotton candy to proofreading paperclip invoices, Beverly is now an editor in New York City. She believes that the stories we tell are the stuff of life, along with music, creatures, and the beach. She lives in New Jersey near the ocean.